RSA Arts & Ecology

Hacking together a project

In a blog a couple of weeks ago, Matthew Taylor called for ideas for a new RSA project on manufacturing. Given the RSA’s commitment to practical project work, he suggested that heavy industrial projects would be impractical for us and that worthy reports on the future of manufacturing in the UK are two-a-penny.

The rise of hacking (see this paper published by the RSA’s Design team in 2009) provides food for thought, but the practical project isn’t yet clear… Anyway rather than go over the same ground again, I thought I’d do something more constructive, like make a map of the Hackspaces that are springing up around the UK. This one (click on it to go to the actual map) shows the Hackspaces listed on the Hackspace Foundation website as of today.

I’d be interested to know what factors contribute to the forming of a hackspace. Is it a university near by? More diverse or tolerant communities? Concentration of creative or high-tech industry? What do you think?

Map of UK Hackspaces – data taken from http://hackspace.org.uk/

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Think Big, Teach Local

It’s an exciting moment in the Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. We’re at the point where we try to move away from bothering busy people with important jobs, asking them to do things they wouldn’t normally do, and towards a role supporting people moving ahead with their own projects. Where the RSA stops being ‘doer’ and begins to act in the role of ‘supporter’. Communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point.

The point of an Area Based Curriculum is that communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point. Eleven years of working with schools on Opening Minds has convinced the RSA of the power of a curriculum that is conceived, designed and implemented by teachers in a school. The Area Based Curriculum goes one step further: reaching out beyond the school gates and asking the people in a local area to pitch in and work with teachers, bringing their ideas, resources and expertise.

The problem is, of course, that in order for the work to be worthwhile we of course do have a view on what should go in the curriculum, and who should be involved. We insist that the curriculum reflect the diversity of a local area, and seek to engage those not normally involved in education. We ask that the projects take proper account of the national entitlement of all children to a certain set of shared knowledge, at the same time as reflecting local knowledges and priorities. Our reasons for doing the work in the first place are based on principles – educational and ethical and political. For it to be worth doing we must care about the outcomes, and take responsibility for ensuring that our intervention is not a hollow one that reinforces existing power structures and exclusions, fails to secure different outcomes to what existed before, or worse.

Our project in Peterborough is at the point where we do what we said we went there to do, and try to provoke a genuinely community owned and led curriculum. We have to hope that we have got the balance right: between providing enough steer to the work so that we achieve and can measure what we set out to do, and stepping aside at the right time to allow the teachers and community partners in Peterborough to develop and own their own projects.

The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother?

This tension between the stated aims of a given intervention and local ownership, of course, is present in all work by agencies seeking to enable people to do things for themselves. This includes central government espousing ideas like the Big Society. At the beginning the intervention, or policy, or suggestion for change is just that – ‘centralised’, ‘top down’, ‘external’. The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother? At the same time the enactment of the Big Society needs to be internalised and owned by communities, professionals and individuals. What are the mechanisms for making this happen? How do we establish a shared sense of what we are trying to achieve? And how far does or should the original intervener (in this case the Coalition Government) retain responsibility for the outcomes?

The Area Based Curriculum is, ultimately, about culture change. It’s about subtle but crucial shifts in perceptions of ownership, responsibility and expectation. So too is the Big Society. We will soon find out whether our assumptions about how to effect change in a way that empowers have been correct, and we will learn a lot on the way. Sharing this learning with others doing similar work will be crucial to informing the success of the Big Society.

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The Ecology of Innovation

One of the component parts of Citizen Power (a two year programme of innovation, participation and place-making in Peterborough) aims to spark and support local people’s ideas that could make “green” behaviour easier throughout the city. When planning the project we were inspired by insights into what can influence people’s behaviour and decision-making (such as the dramatic effect of social proof).

Our approach has been to teach these principles to local residents and help them apply them to the behaviours that underlie local environmental problems. We think that giving community activists the knowledge and support to “nudge” their neighbours could be a better way of encouraging behaviour change. National attempts to apply these principles could leave people feeling preached at, or alienate people by taking covert approaches.

Instead, we think that training community activists with the knowledge they need to nudge their neighbours can harness their local knowledge, their “one-of-us” status, and their existing trusted relationships with their community.

Towards the end of last year we tested this approach in a two-day workshop. Twenty-five enthusiastic residents learned about the effects of personal, social and infrastructural factors on human behaviour, then worked together to apply this knowledge to Peterborough specific problems. After a pitch to a panel of judges, two ideas were selected for seed-funding and non-financial support to allow them to become pilot projects.

One of the pilots will encourage a wider segment of the community to manage local plots of unused land. The group behind this project plan to map unused land in their neighbourhood and throughout Peterborough, then run small interventions to encourage local people to take an active role in stewarding the land.

The other pilot will encourage residents living near an area of ancient woodland to take an active forest management role. Currently neglected and the scene of anti-social behaviour, the community decided to create a woodland walk to make walking through the forest a normal activity for local residents.

Part of this approach to local nudging was informed by a paper – The Ecology of Innovation – that we published just before Christmas. It presents a few simple principles that could be used to encourage and support local people in getting projects off the ground. These principles include ensuring that local community organisations are able to participate in contributing their ideas, and supporting their ideas with financial and non-financial support so that they can be tested. You can read the paper online or download it here.

In 2011, we’re looking forward to getting these ideas off the ground, and also holding more workshops to encourage and support more ideas that could make Peterborough into an even greener place to live!

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Modern Art

Although many would consider art that has been composed within the last few years as modern, that is incorrect. Art that is being or has been created since 1960-1970 is considered Contemporary Art. Modern Art is art that was created from around the late 1860’s until the 1960’s or 1970’s.

Dubbed “Modern Art” due to the experimentation with paints and other mediums, Modern Art did away with the past reflections and considerations as to what constituted Art. One major characteristic of Modern Art was the use of abstraction. Although their works are not considered Modern Art, the Romantic and Impressionist artists of the earlier 1800’s are thought to be the pioneers of Modern Art. Although Modern Art is considered to have started in the late 1860’s, the term was not used until 1939, when American art critic Clement Greenburg coined the phrase while referring to a piece of art by Jackson Pollack.

Modern Art is also referred to as the art of the -isms. Examples include cubism made popular by Pablo Picasso, Fauvism, created by the young, hedonistic artists in Paris, such as Matisse, and Surrealism, the art that scared and surprised, by such artists as Munch.

Modern Art is not simply exemplified in paintings, but was also shown in free formed abstract sculptures, papier mache, and steel workings. Popular in Europe at the end of the 19th century, the United States did not become a center for Modern Art until after artists moved to America after World War l.

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An accidental hero? BP, oil spills and innovation : RSA Projects

It’s been the story that has covered the financial press for weeks. BP’s involvement in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the news, sent its share price plummeting, and erupted a row of diplomacy between the US and the UK over the treatment of the oil giant.

But in all the bad news perhaps there is one area of hope to come from all of this. And that’s in the area of green technology and innovation.

Vinod Khosla, of Khosla Ventures recently said that he believed the BP oil spill would spur innovation in the green technology market and provide a once in a lifetime window of opportunity to develop and build new and sustainable technologies as a result. Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems has a track record of investing in winners making his comments worth taking notice of. Could this be a turning point?

Perhaps we are entering a new age where it’s not warfare but the environment that will drive innovation

Evidence of new ideas spurred on by the disaster have been seen close to home. The BBC website asked readers to come up with novel ways to find a solution to plugging the gap. Ex-plumbers and would-be inventors all came up with a variety of solutions to deal with the problem from a giant umbrella to a larger version of the technology used to plug a leak in household plumbing. None would work, but what’s promising in all of this is that the oil spill has managed to capture the imagination of innovators and would be inventors.

Courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans

So the question that this raises is what fosters such innovation in the light of such adversity? In a world where technology has generally been spurred on through wars and subsequent technologies spun off from military hardware, perhaps we are entering a new age where it’s not warfare but the environment that will drive innovation. And why is the BP oil spill different from the many others corporate accidents that occur?

Firstly, the locality of the accident to the US and to Silicon Valley will play a big part in the regions industries and venture capitalists focusing on green technologies. When the problem is on your doorstep, and the environmental impact of the gulf spill certainly is on America’s, it makes the problem local, personal and the need to solve it becomes greater. America has long been criticised for not doing enough in terms of the environment but this will all have to change following these recent events if they are to continue to enjoy the landscape and ecosystems that many have taken for granted for so long.

The second reason is that things can’t actually get much worse, which leaves innovators with a golden opportunity to make mistakes. Sir Harold Evans, the legendary journalist and commentator on innovation discussed this very concept in his talk here at the RSA a few weeks ago.  He discussed that the myth of the “Eureka” moment has discouraged many would be innovators and inventors to consider themselves not good enough with their ideas. The process of innovation as described by Evans is one in which mistakes are allowed, if not essential, as part of the process of developing and bringing forward new inventive ideas. So in the Gulf of Mexico  things can hardly get worse. This gives a golden opportunity to try out new solutions and develop and innovate them. Entrepreneurs and would be inventors can work and trial the unthinkable, knowing that failure is only one of the steps to finding success. This will allow for more bolder and creative solutions to be tried which Kholsla and many others argue will be the place in which we find some of the great technologies that will change the environment and our society.

From an entrepreneur’s view, the green energy industry has just received a cash injection of £20 billion dollars and unrivalled government support

Thirdly, view this crisis from the eyes of on entrepreneur and it’s an industry that has just received a cash injection of £20 billion dollars and unrivalled government support to help technology – not bad conditions for any would be industry.  This opens up opportunities for the rate of change and rate of innovation in the green tech sector to develop far beyond what has been seen previously. If we look at the development and innovation of the internet, new entrepreneurs and new minds accelerated the use of technologies and changed the industry from dial-up to the super fast broadband we have today. This same pattern of development could be spurred on from the BP oil spill as a variety of new entrepreneurs who follow the mantra “that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” enter the market supported by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who have a personal interest in cleaning up the environment because it’s right on their doorstep.

So even in the face of one of the world’s most significant disasters, we can find hope for the future, and for our planet. Localised problems spur on localised innovation, and a space to make mistakes may well see the development of technologies that help combat climate change and ensure that we have the tools to deal with future environmental disasters. Let’s hope that one thing that comes from this is that we don’t waste this opportunity to change the face of the green technologies industry or even more importantly create a new wave of green entrepreneurs committed to developing technologies in this sector.

via An accidental hero? BP, oil spills and innovation : RSA Projects.

Art, Ecology and Citizen Power

Tomorrow, the Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman arrives in the UK to begin her residency atClare Cottage in Helpston, near Peterborough. Her stay marks a shift in focus for Arts & Ecology, towards exploring how the arts may engage people locally with environmental change and sustainability. As part of this, Marjolijn has been invited to stay at the home of the local romantic poet John Clare who died in 1864, so is no longer living there. The cottage was refurbished last year and Marjolijn intends to explore contemporary ideas about ‘place’ with people in the surrounding villages and the city of Peterborough, which is where the RSA Citizen Power project is located.
Wandering Through the Future (installation) by Marjolijn Dijkman, 2007. Commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 8: ‘STILL LIFE, Art, Ecology and the politics of Change’. Photo by Lateefa Maktoum

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The thing we shouldn’t be asking artists to do


Heart of Darkness by Cornelia Parker, 2004 from Earth: art of a changing world, London 2009

This is Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage week – it’s an initiative championed by Bridget McKenzie as a response to the growing number of individuals and organisations calling for a more clearly defined sense of purpose from the arts and heritage sector.  People like Al Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle ask: “Why do we expect moral leadership to come from corporations and science? Surely the meaningful nature of the arts in society puts it in a position to take a lead on climate action?”

There are two aspects to this. Firstly it’s about how we behave ourselves. Art fairs, say, have become an example of the muscularity of the art industry. As curators/critics Maja and Reuben Fowkes have asked,  is this world of global art jamborees a sustainable one? Gustav Metzger’s Reduce Art Flights was one of the artist’s passionate “appeals”, this time to the art world to reconsider how they had been seduced into transporting themselves and their works around the globe. Furtherfield.org’s We Won’t Fly For Art was equally explicit, asking artists to commit to opting out of the high profile career track that conflates your ability to command air tickets with success.

Industries can change the way they behave. Tickell’s work with the music business has already shown how a cultural industry can transform itself in terms of process.

But there’s also the role of art as a spoke in the wheel of culture. Science itself changes nothing. To become a transitional society requires more than policy. The real change must be cultural. So should climate be the subject matter of art?

Pause for thought: Do we want rock stars enjoining us to change our ways? Please God, no. See? If it doesn’t work for rock music, why should it work for other art forms?

In an article being published next week on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, Madeleine Bunting will be arguing strongly against the urge to push artists into an instrumental role in climate:

“The visual arts offer a myriad of powerful ways to think and feel more deeply about our age and our humanity, but it is almost impossible to trace the causal links of how that may feed through to political engagement or behaviour change,” she cautions.

It is time to accept that artists don’t simply  ”do” climate. Even the most obviously campaigning art is of little value if it is simply reducible to being about climate. They may be inspired to create by the facts of science and economics, as Metzger and Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett of Furtherfield were in those examples above, but if you asked them to make art about climate they’d almost certainly run a mile.

What was interesting about the RA exhibition Earth: art of a changing world was the way that made that explicit. Artists like Cornelia Parker and Keith Tyson were clear in saying their pieces that they weren’t necessarily conceived with climate in mind at all, (though both are passionate about the subject). The decision to include Parker’s Heart of Darkness as an a piece of work to make us ponder the destruction of our planet was a curatorial one.

There’s a kind of separation between church and state needed here; institutions shouldn’t just be looking to their carbon footprints, they should be looking to see how they can contextualise this cultural shift with what they show their audiences – whatever the artform. It is up to the curators, directors and art directors to take on this role. In this coming era, we urgently need events, exhibitions and festivals that make us feel more deeply about the change taking place around us – and we need them to find new audiences for those explorations too.

But what we shouldn’t be doing is asking artists to make art about climate.

Read Bridget McKenzie’s Framework for climate action in cultural and heritage organisations

Follow Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage #cach on twitter

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Another kind of model village…

As Sterling’s blog Beyond the Beyond points out, artist Sergio Cezar makes huge models of the Brazilian favelas out of cardboard.

There is something disturbing about scale. The 200 dolls houses of Rachel Whiteread’s Place(2008) – part of Psycho Buildings at the Hayward – were downright creepy. Maybe it’s because there’s something unsettling about the way we loom over things when they’re unsettlingly small. You can’t help feeling a little like Adolf Hitler looming over Albert Speer’s models for a new Berlin.

It’s also something to do with the fact that we aim for a kind of perfection when making models. I once met a criminologist who made model villages. True story. I wondered if he would put the odd burglar breaking into a model house into his creations but it turned out his model villages were entirely crime free. He preferred it that way. We Brits tend to make villages set in some imaginary idyllic past.

And so when you look at them there’s a dissonance between their vision of miniature perfection and the imperfection of what they represent. Which is why I kind of like this vision of a slum; it makes it look cute for a second until you start thinking of what it must be like to live in it and what that person in the black limousine is doing there.

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Furtherfield.org: The Zero Dollar Laptop

Nice to see Bruce Sterling picking up on the excellent media arts collective furtherfield.org’s Zero Dollar Laptop project.

Working with clients from St Mungo’s homeless charity, they’re helping people break up old laptops and build new ones, adding free opensource software to help them build new computers for themselves entirely free of charge.

It’s a great project. To paraphrase the fishing rod homily, teach a man to use Microsoft Word and they’ll be able to write their own CV. Teach him tobuild his own laptop from scratch and, who knows, I’ll probably be sending him my CV in years to come.

Donate your own laptop to the project

Find out more about The Zero Dollar Laptop project

Furtherfield and Feral Trade Cafe on Arts & Ecology

Furtherield on not flying for art

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On houses that fall into the sea

Earlier this week the papers were full of stories of Ridgemont House in Devon – a house bought for £150,000 by auction, only to see its garden plummet down towards Oddicombe Beach.

The story brought together the national obsession with house prices with the fact of increasing coastal erosion due to climate change. Artist Kane Cunningham is jealous of the Devon housebuyer. He is actually waiting for his house to fall into the sea:

Landscape artist Kane Cunningham has used his credit card to buy a house that is about to fall into the sea. A bungalow at Knipe Point in Scarborough, North Yorkshire – near the scene of the infamous Holbeck Hotel cliff collapse 16 years ago has been condemned after a fresh landslip. Cunningham states:

‘I’ve bought a house that will be the next one to fall over the cliff. It feels like I have no choice. I’m going to rig the house with cameras and film the last sunrise before nature claims its bounty’.

‘It’s the perfect site-specific installation – a stark reminder of lost dreams, financial disaster and threatening sea levels. It’s global recession and global warming encapsulated. This little house is feet away from the edge of the cliff – it can go at any moment. The idea is to create an artwork on a scale never been seen before in North Yorkshire and to stimulate within the imagination of the public the idea that this house falling into the sea can become a work of art. If the aim of art is to stimulate discussion and debate on issues, then surely this will get people talking.’

His idea’s a little like Bettinna Furnee’s Lines of Defence, except this time with a real house involved. It’s an interesting thought; if you’re trying to make people act on climate, maybe you need to make the message as domestic as possible, like an English bungalow falling into the sea…

Maybe

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